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De Berlijn Blogs: (Un)Locked Lives

By Mirjam Dorgelo It has been 1.5 years since I came back from my anthropological fieldwork research in Berlin and three days since I handed in my final thesis addressing the dynamics of commemorative and spatial practices at Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen; the former secret Stasi research prison in Berlin where eyewitnesses, once imprisoned there as political prisoners, now work as tour guides. The previous Berlin Blog post I wrote while still in the field doing research. This post, in which I will summarize some of the findings of my research, not so much closes the series (I hope), but indicates an ending of a specific time frame, my life as an anthropology student.
While studying the intermingling processes of memory, trauma, place and belonging at the Gedenkstätte, my assumption that belonging is often characterized by a positive stance (towards people, places, ideas) was greatly challenged by the connection between belonging and suffering I observed among eyewitnesses working at a former place of trauma. Though I realized that belonging naturally has a restrictive component in the sense that one identifies not only with a place or person, but also in spite of, or against other options, it soon became clear that notions of belonging can also develop from and be shaped by places of terror, isolation and alienation.
While participating in various eyewitness tours to observe the interplay of commemorative and spatial practices, all eyewitnesses referred to the ‘Operative Psychologie’; a research and training specialty at the Stasi law school in Potsdam dealing with the symptoms, conditions, and laws of mental experiences and the mental control of behavior and actions used to undermine and disrupt political opponent in the GDR, which findings were also applied in the Stasi research prison. This ‘Operative Psychologie’ emerged in, for example, accounts of interrogation methods, but is also visible in the architectural features and inner spatial characteristics of the former prison buildings; such as the glass brick windows through which prisoners could not see anything except distinguishing night and day; the traffic light systems on the corners of the cellar wings used to warn guards, who led a prisoner to or from an interrogation, if there was another prisoner on the way and thus ensured the prisoners would not see each other; guards operating the lights in the cells from the outside, and slamming the iron bars on the cell doors to disrupt sleeping prisoners. These spatial characteristics now function as a sort of spatial guidebook for the tour guides through which the past is narrated. Through the performance of guided tours eyewitnesses consciously unlock and process the past by narrating about their experiences, incorporating the use of spatial features and deliberately positioning themselves in certain spots such as the interrogator’s chair to confront and regain power over the past. Though the tour repertoires – a unique combination of the official tour guide curriculum and each eyewitness’ own experience of imprisonment – are indicated by several eyewitnesses as a way to avoid or repress the resurfacing of memories during the tours, the spatial characteristics nevertheless evoke memories that are considered unspeakable. This uncontrollable emergence of memories through scent, the banging of doors, audience questions, or even the sense of a ‘lingering spirit’, is often felt as adding to instead of lessening the eyewitnesses emotional stress or pain. Then why do eyewitnesses continue their work as tour guides even though it may be emotionally demanding, painful or traumatic?
Though part of it, the necessity of the guided tours is not merely revealing the past, or an eyewitness’ individual regaining of control over a painful personal past, but also an attempt to unravel the past where others try to invalidate it. While eyewitnesses both addressed Germany’s post-war/partition past as a direct consequence of WW2 and the felt imbalance in commemorating the GDR past with respect to Germany’s Nazi past, the guided tours were in particular identified as an attempt to achieve justice and undo Ostalgie. A recurring argument during the tours and subsequent interviews was the perceived injustice that many people who held an important position during the GDR, either with the Stasi or the SED, today have their own companies, law firms, psychology practices, shopping centers, are board members, mayors or even occupy high governmental positions (for example the Brandenburg 2009 red-red coalition of SPD and Die Linke – the left parties’ top being interspersed with former Stasi informants). The underlying problem of the current social positions those people now hold is expressed in different ways, but is always the same: no one was held accountable for injustices committed because officially they all acted under the law of the GDR. As the reunification treaty in 1990 contained no law to sentence people who worked for the Stasi, only in exceptional cases could people, if known by name to have committed atrocities, be held accountable. This treaty thus promoted no awareness of injustice therefore any need to apologize and, though it might have become politically incorrect to deny or trivialize Stasi practices, there are no official consequences. This is a thorn in the side of the former inmates, who sometimes fiercely raise these issues during their guided tours. Though Ostalgie was indicated in various ways by eyewitnesses, they share the idea that when the GDR past is depicted as an idyll, when the underlying problem of the GDR being a totalitarian state is trivialized, ignored or denied, their work is to unmask this forgetfulness. Their guiding work could even be interpreted as a way to protect the past from being ‘sold’ by ambiguous interpretations, trivializations, denial or forgetfulness, whether such forgetfulness is intentional or unintentional, harmful or relatively harmless.
The present ‘inhabitance’ of eyewitnesses working in the Gedenkstätte as tour guides, is therefore not only a coping strategy or the regaining of power over their oppressed pasts, but should also be seen as a fight for recognition, for belonging in a reunited democratic Germany and the undoing of certain forms of longing for a past they consider undesirable. Their work can be seen as a tool to achieve social justice. It is precisely this contest between eyewitnesses pursuing recognition and justice, seeking to unlock the past, and those who counteract their quest by attempting to lock away the past, which is captured in the title: (un)locked lives. A title that not only represents this contest, but also connects it to the various nuances and ambiguities that characterize the processes of memory, trauma and place at the Gedenkstätte: the eyewitnesses practices to unlock the past by guiding tours yet keeping it at a bearable distance; the nevertheless uncontrollable emergence and unfolding of memories; the eyewitnesses’ ability to enter and leave the site providing an opportunity to enter (unlock) and leave (lock) the past; the danger and fear of becoming trapped inside the past and, of course, it identifies the difference between their past as prisoners and their present freedom.
Next week I will be in Berlin again, visiting the Gedenktätte and perhaps discuss my findings with my informants. For this thesis may mark the end of me being an anthropological student, it is does not mark the closure of the past, nor the struggle over the (in)validation of the past to all those who shared their precious time, stories and silences with me.

Mirjam Dorgelo is a Master student at the department for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Earlier she wrote about her fieldwork in Berlin.


  1. José José

    Interesting observation and theorizing, Mirjam. The way your informants let the past revive to get recognition strikes me. Unless their emotions, or supported by those emotions. I would like to know the extent to which your informants are actually receiving this recognition through those tours. How do the guided people react? Do those tour guides receive the recognition which they seem to be longing for?

  2. Mirjam Dorgelo Mirjam Dorgelo

    Well, recognition is quite hard to ‘measure’ I think. What I do know is that the guiding of tours, having a public to speak to, is already a kind of recognition in itself while former prisoners now have the power to publicly voice their story to others. Though I have not focused on the audience responses in my research, I have participated with guided groups in tours and observed their reactions during and afterwards. In general audiences are impressed and often emotionally touched by the experiences of former inmates, but there are also instances in which the audience can be experienced as difficult. For example when there are people who downplay the seriousness of the prison experiences or trivialize the workings of the GDR state and Stasi by asking ‘funny’ questions or comments. Some schoolclasses are experienced as more difficult or straining to guide when, for example, they hardly know anything about the history of the GDR or when they are too young to grasp the seriousness. The recognition is thus achieved in some way by the guiding of tours itself, in the ability to speak to others, but another conclusion that could be drawn from my research is that their guiding work is also a necessary answer to ongoing contemporary contests in German society over the (in)validation of the GDR past. Though the growing number of visitors, amongst whom many powerful national politicians, and the growing recognition of victims of the GDR regime by the contemporary German state in some way ‘measure’ recognition, the GDR past is not a closed chapter which former prisoners now merely narrate to others. It remains an ongoing struggle and point of discussion which surfaces for example in local election results, neighbourhood struggles and books written by former Stasi officers in which they trivialize or justify their practices. I am not sure if I have answered your questions in a satisfactory way, if not, please let me know!

  3. José José

    Yes, this is a quite satisfying answer, thank you Mirjam. It’s quite interesting how a tour (guide) receives a different point of view from different generations. A location can be a heritage from a certain time or be objectivated as a total new experience. The present indeed is a key to the past, but sometimes it helps to see the door in which the key fits. This project opens doors from which the key still is very up-to-date.

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